A bill that would push local election dates from the spring to the fall narrowly won approval in the Kansas Senate on Thursday.
The vote was 21-19.
During debate earlier, Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, the bill’s sponsor, criticized the state’s current system for local elections and the resistance to change it.
Holmes’ bill, SB 171, originally would have moved local elections to the fall of even-numbered years and made them partisan, a change critics said was meant to solidify conservative dominance at all levels of Kansas government.
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The bill was changed in committee to keep local elections non-partisan and in odd-numbered years, but to move them from April to November.
An amendment Thursday added that all local tax and bond issue votes must be held in primary or general elections and not in special elections. Sen. Jacob LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, said this ensured that as many voters as possible would have a say on local tax rates.
Holmes said data from other states showed that moving elections to fall would increase voter turnout even if they are kept on odd-numbered years.
“April is the absolutely worst month” to hold an election, Holmes said. “Of the 12 months, April is the worst.”
Holmes pointed out that Kansas has the fifth most units of government out of all states, and that much of that is composed of local government. He said increased turnout would lead to greater transparency.
“They’re elected on a day that nobody notices,” Holmes said of the current system.
Despite the changes to the bill, Holmes spent much of his speech lauding the concept of pairing presidential elections and local elections. He referenced Ferguson, Mo., the St. Louis suburb that gained international notoriety last year after Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen, was shot and killed by a white police officer.
Holmes highlighted the fact that Ferguson’s city council is disproportionately white compared to its population, which he blamed on off-year elections, contending that “minorities vote better in on-cycle elections than off-cycle elections.”
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, one of only two African-Americans in the Senate, took exception to this argument.
“I don’t live in Ferguson. I don’t know anybody who lived there. … We’re here in Kansas,” she said.
Holmes also criticized opponents of moving the election dates, noting that lawmakers’ e-mail inboxes had been inundated with petitions against the bill.
“What we have, folks, is a locked-in, organized effort to keep the status quo regardless,” Holmes said.
Holmes said that most voters would welcome the change despite the organized opposition. “This is not controversial to John Q. Public,” he said.
School districts oppose the change
Even with the more mild version of the bill, 194 school districts have signed resolutions against changing the election dates, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Holmes contended that “organized groups” have outsized influence in elections with low turnout. He did not specify which organized group has an outsized influence in Kansas, but in previous comments he has framed the bill as a way to weaken the power of teachers unions over local school board elections.
“He’s posed this in the press as wresting the school boards out of the power out of the teachers association, which is absurd,” said Mark Desetti, legislative director of the KNEA, the state’s largest teachers union. “The truth of the matter is that we don’t control school board elections more than anybody else.”
Desetti also questioned Holmes’ logic that moving elections to the fall would break the power of organized groups. He said that organized conservative groups, such as Americans For Prosperity, which has ties to Koch Industries, dominate November elections.
“So I guess then AFP who dominates our November elections is not an organized group? Who dominates our November elections? Huge super PACs and organized groups. It’s an absurd argument,” Desetti said. “In fact the April elections have fewer organized groups involved because under these nonpartisan, spring elections the big PACs don’t get involved in them now.”
The bill now moves to the House.